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A Pittsburgh Little Italy

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The following essay was written by Al Giarratana of New Jersey on October 26, 1989.
The experience of growing up Italian seems to be very similar whether one was from
Panther Hollow, nearby Bloomfield, or New Jersey.

The Joy of Growing Up Italian

I was well into adulthood before I realized that I was an American. Of course, I had been born in America and had lived here all my life but, somehow, it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States meant I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of packages. Me? I was Italian.

For me, as I am sure for most second generation Italian American children who grew up in the 40s and 50s, there was a definite distinction between US and THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else – the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish – they were the AMED-E-GONS. There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feelings, just – well – we were sure ours was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a coal and ice man, a fruit and vegetable man, watermelon man, and a fish man. We even had a man who sharpened knives and scissors who came right to our homes or, at least, right outside our homes. They were the peddlers who plied the Italian neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive sound. We knew them all and they knew us. Americans went to the store for most of their food – what a waste.

Truly, I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. And instead of being able to climb up on the back of the peddler’s truck a couple of times a week to hitch a ride, most of my AMED–E–GON friends had to be satisfied with going to the A & P. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my American friends or classmates ate only turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Or rather, that they ONLY ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Now we Italians – we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce - but only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever mama thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday. The turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of something (just in case somebody walked in who didn’t like turkey) and was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and, of course, homemade cookies. No holiday was complete without some home baking, none of that store-bought stuff for us. This is where you learned to eat a seven course meal between noon and 4:00 p.m., how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerine wedges in red wine. I truly believe Italians live a romance with food.

Speaking of food – Sunday was truly the big day of the week! That was the day you’d wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you lay in bed, you could hear the hiss as tomatoes were dropped into a pan. Sunday we always had gravy (the AMED–E–GONS called it sauce) and macaroni (they called it pasta). Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you couldn’t eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving communion, but, the good part we knew was when we got home we’d find hot meatballs frying, and nothing tastes better that newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of gravy.

There was another difference between us and them. We had gardens, not just flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them, jarred them. Of course, we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree. And in the fall everybody made homemade wine, lots of it. Of course, those gardens thrived so because we all had something else it seemed our American friends didn’t seem to have. We had a Grandfather.

It’s not that they didn’t have a grandfather, it’s just that they didn’t live in the same house, or in the same block. They visited their grandfathers. We ate with ours and God forbid if we didn’t see him at least once a day. I can still remember my grandfather telling us about how he came to America as a young man “on the boat”, how the family lived in a rented tenement and took in boarders in order to help ends meet, how he decided he didn’t want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, was in his own version of Italian/English which I soon learned to understand quite well.

So, when he saved enough, and I never figured out how, he bought a house. That house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how he hated to leave. He would rather sit on the back porch and watch his grandson grow, and when he did leave for some special occasion, he had to return as quickly as possible. After all, “nobody’s watching the house.” I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandfather’s house and there would be tables of food and homemade wine and music. There were women in the kitchen, men in the living room and kids, kids, and kids everywhere. I must have a half million cousins, first and second and some who aren’t even related, but what did it matter. And my grandfather, his pipe in his mouth and his fine mustache trimmed, would sit in the middle of it all grinning his mischievous smile, his dark eyes twinkling, surveying his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done. One was a cop, one a fireman, one had his trade, and of course, there was always the rogue. And the girls - they had all married well and had fine husbands and healthy children and everyone knew respect.

He had achieved his goal of coming to America and to New Jersey and now his children and their children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country because they were Americans. When my grandfather died years ago at the age of 76, things began to change. Slowly at first, but then uncles and aunts eventually began to cut down on their visits. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing, although when we did get together, usually at my grandmother’s house now, I always had the feeling that he was there somehow. It was understandable, of course. Everyone now had families of their own and grandchildren of their own. Today they visit once or twice a year. Today we meet at weddings and wakes.

Lots of other things have changed too. The old house my grandfather bought is now covered with aluminum siding, although my uncle still lives there and of course my grandfather’s garden is gone. The last of the homemade wine has long since been drunk and nobody covers the fig tree in the fall anymore. For a while we would make the rounds on the holidays, visiting family. Now we occasionally visit the cemetery. A lot of them are there, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and even my own father.

The holidays have changed too. The great quantity of food we once consumed without any ill effects is no good for us anymore. Too much starch, too much cholesterol, too many calories. And nobody bothers to bake anymore – too busy and it’s easier to buy it now and too much is no good for you. We meet at my house now, at least my family does, but it’s not the same.

The differences between US and THEM aren’t so easily defined anymore and I guess that’s good. My grandparents were Italian Italians, my parents were Italian Americans, I’m an American Italian and my children are American Americans. Oh, I’m an American all right and proud of it, just as my grandfather would want me to be. We are all Americans now – the Irish, Germans, Poles and Jews. U.S. citizens and all – but somehow I feel a little bit Italian. Call it culture, call it tradition, call it roots, I’m really not sure what it is. ALL I DO KNOW IS THAT MY CHILDREN HAVE BEEN CHEATED OUT OF A WONDERFUL PIECE OF THE HERITAGE. THEY NEVER KNEW MY GRANDFATHER.

 

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